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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

January 29, 2012

10 Ways to Blow an MBA Admissions Interview

In the post, I wanted to provide some overall advice about MBA admissions interviews, by focusing on what not to do. My advice is based on over ten years of experience helping clients prepare for admissions interviews to the world's most selective MBA programs.

My prior overall MBA admissions strategy interview posts are  herehere, and here. My school specific interview posts (At the moment consisting of CBS, Chicago Booth, Cornell, Haas, HBS, INSEAD, Kellogg, Michigan, MIT, Stanford, Tuck, and Wharton) can be found in the "Key Posts" section in the left-hand column.


1.  Not reviewing your resume and essays before the interview.  This is rather basic because even admissions offices regularly give this advice to applicants.  If you are preparing for a blind interview, one where the interviewer has only your resume, the content that comes out of your essays (and not just  the essays for the school you are interviewing with!) can easily serve as a core basis on which to build your overall content strategy.  For interviews, such as HBS, MIT, IMD, LBS, and NYU, where the interviewer will have read your essays, you want to make sure that your interview answers are  both consistent with and build beyond your essays so that you are not merely telling the interviewer the same stories that they have already read.  Regardless of the type of interview you have, mastering your resume is critical because you should assume the interviewer will ask you questions that come directly from it.  Mastering your resume means being able to effectively interpret your resume (Answering why, how, when, what, who in relation to EVERYTHING in your resume), being able to anticipate any negative issues (The 1 year gap in employment, the frequent job change, the lack of extracurricular activities, the lack of international experience, etc. ), and being able to sell your experience by effectively presenting a core set of messages about your strengths when discussing your past experience.

2. Not being audience friendly.   Consider who you are talking to and how best to present information to them.  Your job is to present yourself effectively under time limited circumstances to someone you probably have not met before, whose job is to make a recommendation as to whether you should be admitted or rejected from the program. They are not your friend. They are not your enemy. They are humans with a limited capacity to absorb oral information, so don't recite your essays from memory in such a manner that that it would be overwhelming. Provide well organized responses that demonstrate your potential for operating effectively the typical interactive environments in and out of class that one would find in an MBA program.  You must make the transition from reciting a text to speaking. One reason I view intensive scripting of full answers as a problem for most applicants is that having a script makes the transition to speaking harder for many people.  Scripted answers are useful as an initial starting point for applicants with limited English ability, but even such applicants need to get beyond the script so that they are providing engaging, direct, and seemingly spontaneous answers to questions.

3. Not learning enough about the school. This is simply inexcusable. Beyond being able to discuss yourself, the other main topic you need to be able to handle is the school itself. If you cannot effectively address what you will contribute to the school, why it best meets your professional objectives, and why you are passionate about attending the school, you will likely have a problem in the interview.

4. Not having good questions for the interviewer.  For most interviews, assume that you will have time to ask at least 1-3 questions for the interviewer.  As such you need to think about what you will ask. For alumni and student interviewers, this is easy because you can simply ask them about their experience and ask for advice about the program.  For admissions officers, I think this can be trickier because often it is not really clear what to ask.  I suggest you focus your questions for admissions interviewers on your academic needs ("Will Professor Smith be teaching his famous course on... next year? I really want to take it"),  your personal needs related to the program ("My partner will be coming with me, what sort of support does your program offer?"),  and perhaps location ("Aside from campus housing, where would you recommend living?").  If you put a little thought into it, it should not be hard to come up with some questions to ask.  The point of asking such questions is to further demonstrate your passionate interest in attending the program.

5. Not getting feedback before you interview. Whether you use an an admissions consultant or not, get some feedback before you interview from someone who can at least judge your performance if not your content.  While I think getting holistic feedback on both your content and performance is best, given that an interview is largely about making an effective overall impression, at least getting feedback on that is better than nothing. The better the quality and extent of the feedback, the more you can anticipate potential problems in your answers, can gain confidence in your delivery, and can become comfortable performing in front of an audience. The amount of feedback someone needs varies from minimal to extensive.  I have clients who are natural interviewees and only need to do a limited amount of preparation. I have other clients who must prepare extensively to even begin to feel comfortable with their answers.

6. Not explaining why the school is your first choice.  For some schools, like Columbia Business School, assume you will be asked not only why you applied to the school, but where else you applied, and even which school is your first choice.  There is only one right answer, which is that the school the interviewer represents is your first choice.  You need to explain why.  Assume if you say the school is one of your first choices or is your second choice, you will get rejected.  Many interviewers don't ask this sort of question, which is an extremely unfair line of questioning, so just be prepared for it.  Have a solid, well reasoned answer why even your backup school is your first choice.  Pure honesty, when asked an unfair question, is not necessarily in your interest.

7. Not dressing appropriately.  This is the basic department, but admissions officers mention this all the time.  Assume formal dress unless the school states or the interviewer lets you know that business casual is fine. Dress like a clown and you should expect to be treated like one. 

8. Not reviewing the common questions the interviewer is likely to ask.  The lovely thing about MBA interviews is that there exist large pools of online data that can provide you with the questions you are likely to encounter. If you have not visited accepted.com and clearadmit.com's great collections of applicant's interview reports, you must do so!  In my own school specific posts, I include lists of common questions specific to the school.  The fact is that for some schools, the interviewers really do stick to a fairly narrow set of questions. At many schools, you can anticipate 80% to 100% of the questions you will be asked.  What makes an HBS interview hard is in part that the percentage of common questions that are asked varies widely from from 10% (Extreme, but I have seen it) to 90%. For interviews like HBS, other tactics are required (See #9).

9. Not anticipating questions. Assume the worst case scenario: Whatever questions you don't want to be asked are the ones that you will be asked.  Whether these are the standard sort of questions that most applicants hate ("What are you weaknesses?" "Tell me about a time you failed." "Tell me about an ethical dilemma you experienced.")  or questions specific to you ("Why did you quit X company after only six months?"  "You don't seem to have any extracurricular activities on your resume, why?"  "How long have you been playing piano?"), your job is prepare for such questions.  For interviews where the interviewer will have read your full application, see my post on HBS interviews for detailed advice on anticipating questions specific to your application

10. Not recovering from a bad answer.  While it is possible to give a fatally bad answer ("I am applying to your school because it is my backup."), most bad answers are not inherently fatal if you can recover.  An interview is about an overall impression and if you can recover, you can still make that positive impression. Some applicants have the ability to recover and simply move on. Other people lose it. My advice is to feel free to kick yourself in the head after the interview, but to mitigate a bad answer by moving onto the next question and not losing confidence during the interview. Next, if possible, if you can mitigate whatever was bad about your answer, try to do so.  Question-time in the interview is always a possible place to do this, by simply asking to clarify an answer you provided.  As I will discuss in another post, confidence is at least as important as content.

Click here to find out about my interview preparation services.

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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